Nearly two years after its last flight, Virgin Galactic — the space tourism venture founded by Richard Branson, another billionaire who loves space — aborted the scheduled test launch of its SpaceShipTwo commercial aircraft into suborbital space today because of an issue with its rocket motor.
The moment, which was caught on a Twitch livestream by the outlet NASASpaceFlight, was a bit anticlimactic. For those who are unaware, Virgin Galactic’s reusable spaceflight system is made up of two vehicles: its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. The WhiteKnightTwo carries the SpaceShipTwo, which in this case is called the VSS Unity, to an altitude of about 15,240 metres and then releases it.
The pilots then proceed to fire up the Unity’s rocket engine to accelerate to 4,020 km/h and head to space. At its highest altitude, which the company says is 110,032 metres, passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness before the Unity shifts its wings, reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, and heads home.
Nothing close to that happened here. To be fair, there were also no passengers on board, only the pilots and some scientific payloads that are part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. In the video, you can see the company’s spaceplane, the VSS Unity, in the New Mexico skies aboard its carrier aircraft. The carrier aircraft releases the Unity in mid-air, as planned, but per the video, there appeared to be a problem with the ignition, which cut off shortly after release.
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) December 12, 2020
Virgin Galactic confirmed the problem in a statement on Twitter.
“Early update on flight: The ignition sequence for the rocket motor did not complete,” the company said. “Vehicle and crew are in great shape. We have several motors ready at Spaceport America. We will check the vehicle and be back to flight soon.”
The company also confirmed that the pilots, C.J. Sturckow and Dave Mackay, and the vehicles were back safe and sound.
Today’s test launch was significant for Virgin Galactic for many reasons and this misfire could throw a wrench in its plans to start flying commercial passengers, including company founder Branson, to space next year.
First off, the launch was its inaugural spaceflight from Spaceport America, a launch facility paid for by the state of New Mexico and the residents of the Sierra and Dona Ana counties. Per the Verge, residents from nearby towns were told that the spaceport would provide new jobs and tourists looking to explore the nearby areas when they came to fly to space. Virgin Galactic plans to operate all commercial space trips from Spaceport America.
In addition, today’s flight was supposed to be the third time the company sent the VSS Unity into space and back after test flights in 2018 and 2019. The company plans to carry out two remaining spaceflight tests in the coming months before it takes Branson into space. The billionaire’s trip is planned for the first quarter of 2021, according to CNBC.
The outlet reports that Virgin Galactic has received about 600 commercial spaceflight reservations, most of which were sold at between $US200,000 ($265,460) and $US250,000 ($331,825) a pop several years ago. SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers into space. Virgin Galactic plans to reopen ticket sales again after Branson takes his first flight, per CNBC.
Although today’s launch failed, Virgin Galactic’s statement mentioned that it had “several motors ready,” which could be a sign that the company might be flying the Unity again pretty soon. Fingers crossed it won’t take years this time.